BAGHDAD – Armed groups and foreign terrorists have established new camps in central Iraq as government forces attack rebels in the north and south, officials say.
The reports follow an admission by U.S. central command chief Gen. John Abizaid that there are more areas in Iraq under rebel control today than there were last year.
The revelations could be damning for the government of U.S.-appointed interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, who has promised to uproot armed opposition to the nascent government.
New camps have been reported along the Najaf-Baghdad highway in the south. Iraqi and western sources say the camps have been established recently and fortified in the past couple of months.
Reports are coming in of new armed groups organizing themselves in parts of the country earlier thought safe, as fighting escalates in other parts of Iraq. Over the past few days fighting has erupted again in many parts of the country, including Fallujah and Mosul in the north and Sadr City in Baghdad.
U.S. forces have said they targeted houses used by followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-Palestinian believed to the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq.
U.S. warplanes have also attacked Tal Afar near Mosul in the north in an attempt to smash arms smuggling. Local medical sources say at least 27 people were killed and 70 wounded. U.S. military officials said they believed 57 insurgents had died.
U.S. troops also entered the central city Samarra Thursday for the first time in weeks in an attempt to establish local government and force militiamen out.
"They are mostly Ba’athist groups, but there are some foreign terrorists as well," Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress says, referring to the Ba’ath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein. "They have sophisticated military organization, are well trained, well armed, and have lots of money."
His assertion is backed by other Iraqi politicians with close connections among the people.
"There are terrorist camps. They have stored lots of arms and ammunition. They have equipment for forging documents and passports," says Ismail Zayer, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Sabah al-Jedid. "They have positioned themselves to have contacts with people in places like Ramadi and Fallujah, as well as with people in the south."
The groups are said to have established some military camps in Mahmoudiye-Latifiye-Yousefiye along the Baghdad-Najaf highway. Many foreign journalists and aid workers have been kidnapped in this area. Convoys of Iraqi officials have been attacked.
The number of armed militiamen is not known. Most Iraqi sources speak of hundreds; some say it could be close to a thousand.
"Information about this is very sketchy," says a senior western diplomat in Baghdad. "It is just recently that this new phenomenon has come to the attention of people. But, by and large from what little we know these are the people who managed to escape from other areas of the country and found a new haven. I don’t believe this is a new infusion of foreign fighters in the country."
Chalabi, Zayer, and others say they have passed on their information to the government, which has promised to take action.
Government officials say they have been unable so far to confirm the existence of newly-established terrorist camps. But Chalabi says the operations show "that this issue is not a small problem because security forces have had many casualties." Neither he nor government officials offer casualty figures.
"The government is in a tight position," the western diplomat said. "On one hand it knows that it needs to act on the situation even as it continues to develop intelligence about what exactly it is dealing with. On the other, it simply does not have the resources or the political will to go carpet-bombing the area, so to speak."